A season of preparation reaches a conclusion Saturday for the USF men’s and women’s cross country teams when they host the Conference USA Championships.
Coaches have stressed all season the importance of preparing the team, both mentally and physically, to compete at the meet. Assistant coach Rita Arndt said after the Penn State Nationals on Oct. 18 that the runners were learning to push themselves beyond their own expectations.
Now, Arndt said, comes the opportunity to put the new standards to the test.
“Heart is everything in this sport, to push yourself farther,” Arndt said. “(The teams have learned they are capable) of winning performances, and the motivation that comes with seeing what you are capable of makes them that much better.”
The meet will be at the USF golf course. USF coach Greg Thiel said running at home brings inspiration to the team and allows them to relax a little beforehand.
“It’s exciting to be running here at home for the meet,” Thiel said. “Being here, in front of a home crowd, not having to travel makes everyone more comfortable. Running in front of fans that are there for them makes them want to perform better.”
In the teams’ last two meets, the Penn State National and the Notre Dame Invitational on Oct. 3, they competed against a combined 25 men’s and women’s teams ranked in the nation’s top 30. Only the Marquette women’s team, at No. 21, enters this meet ranked.
Against the stiff competition of the past, the teams used the meets to measure themselves against the top programs in the country. On Saturday, the teams, especially the women, are legitimate contenders. They will need a stronger performance from the entire team if they are going to capitalize, though.
A recurring problem for the team has been poor finishes by their fourth and fifth runners. At Penn State, the team placed Christina Benton and Bente General in the top 15, but could manage just eighth when only one other runner, Jessica Hellender at 46th, finished in the top 120.
“We’re definitely in a position where we can win, but we have to continue our hard work,” Arndt said. “Our (women’s) top three have been strong all year. Our No. 4 and 5 runners have been freshmen all year, though, and they are still improving. We have encouraged them to learn with each race this year, and hopefully, they are in a position to put up a strong showing (Saturday).
“We have done a little less distance running in practice, and done some speed work to fine tune their legs. (The women’s team’s) fitness level is phenomenal, and their confidence is high because of it.”
Marquette’s women’s team is the defending conference champion. Thiel said teams such as Marquette and another top C-USA women’s team, TCU, bring extra motivation.
“(Marquette and TCU) will be tough to beat, no doubt about it,” Thiel said. “You prepare the same, no matter what teams you are facing because you are trying to win the meet. But sometimes, I think it can be better (to have higher quality opponents) because it brings out the best in the athletes.
“(Benton, General and Hellender) will compete and finish near the top, but having other good teams out there means you run harder to stay ahead.”
The men, is a team comprised of one senior, two sophomores and two freshmen, have had a learning experience as well. Sean Burris and Adam Chumbley, the team’s lone senior, will be among the favorites to win the individual title Saturday. Burris took 21st at Penn State and Chumbley finished 42nd. But, like the women, a poor showing by the rest of the team hurt them in the team standings. They placed just one other runner in the top 100 and finished 12th overall.
“Sean Burris and Adam Chumbley have a good outlook coming into the race,” Arndt said. “I think people will be looking at (Chumbley) to win, but Sean wants it too. It could be a very competitive race, even among our own guys to see who can get the win.
“Chris Cox, one of our freshmen, has been working out like crazy too, getting himself in the mindset to compete at this meet.”
Thiel added that this meet is important not just as a closure to the season but as an opportunity for the teams to prove to themselves how far they have come this year.
“I don’t know what to expect from the guys, and they have their work cut out for them,” he said. “But (for both teams) all we want is for them to put forth their best effort. We are looking at this sort of like a final exam. It is a chance to see how much we have learned and what we have accomplished.”